I’m in the eastern cape of South Africa at the moment, working with Rhodes University palaeontologist, Dr Rob Gess. Rob has been working on a site called Waterloo Farm which has yielded many spectacular fossil discoveries … but more on this later.
Fans of the coelacanth Latimeria, would know this part of the world well. In 1938, fishermen hauled up a strange fish from the oceanic depths off the coast of South Africa. This fish was identified as a coelacanth, and given it’s name in honour of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, curator of the East London museum who helped to identify the fish.
Coelacanth’s belong to the Sarcopterygii (“lobe-finned” fish), the group that also includes lungfish (wooo!) and tetrapods (the first land-living vertebrates and all their descendants – including you). Today they live at great depths, have a strange hinge separating the front and back parts of their skulls, give birth to live “pups”, and have a special electroreceptive organ in their snout.
Previous to the 1938 discovery, the coelacanth lineage was thought to have gone extinct some 70 million years prior, around the same time of the dinosaurs. Latimeria caused quite a stir upon discovery – it was nicknamed “Old Four Legs” and people thought it was the direct ancestor of mankind! (Spoiler: it is not). Unfortunately the first specimen identified was rotten inside before scientists could dissect it. So the hunt was on for a second specimen… which took a long 14 years!
It is this second specimen, discovered in the Comoros in 1952 and the first one to be dissected, that is on display at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity here in Grahamstown, South Africa (formerly named the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology, after the man who named and described Latimeria). I went to pay my respects to this mighty lobe-finned fish yesterday. Latimeria loooooove!